Book Girl and the Famished Spirit

4.0 out of 5 stars Better than expected

Book Girl and the Famished Spirit

I had never heard of Mizuki Nomura or the “Book Girl” series before picking this up, and to be honest my expectations were low. I don’t have a lot of experience with the Japanese light novel genre, but what I have read so far has been dreadful. But I like Japanese ghosts, and I like yokai, and I like books, so “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit” seemed like something I might enjoy.

This is the second in the Mizuki’s “Book Girl” series, and there are eight in total along with some random short stories and sundry. From what I have read, Mizuki picks a work of classic literature to structure the story of the “Book Girl” light novels around. For “Famished Spirit” that book is Emily Bronte’s moody classic Wuthering Heights. There is also quite a bit of George MacDonald’s The Day Boy and the Night Girl woven in as well. If you haven’t read those books, you are at a distinct disadvantage story-wise, but you can still muddle through.

The story is part Scooby-Doo mystery, part literary exploration, and part teenage love drama. The titular Book Girl is Tohko Amano, a type of yokai (translated in this book as “goblin.” Points off right there for lazy and inaccurate translations) who doesn’t eat food but subsists exclusively on eating books. Real books, paper and all. Tohko is friends with the student Konoha Inoue, and they make up the only two members of the schools Book Club. Mystery falls in their lap one day when strange, coded messages start showing up in their book club mailbox, and a mysterious ghostly figure roams the school halls. In the best tradition of YA adventures, Tohko and Konoha are drug into the mystery, long-buried secrets are uncovered, and only an encyclopedia-like knowledge of Wuthering Heights will win the day.

Without the background of the first book I was a little lost in the beginning of “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit”; there are several plot threads that I don’t know if they are continued over from the first book Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime or not. For example Konoha Inoue is secretly the author of a best-selling book that he wrote under a pen name. So is Konoha rich? Famous? And what about Tohko. Is this a world where the existence of yokai is known and accepted? Or does she hide her true nature?Or are these questions we just aren’t supposed to look into too deeply?

But even without that background, I was impressed with “Book Girl and the Famished Spirit.” It was interesting that in the back, in the Afterward, Mizuki talked about changing the story halfway through, and it shows. The first half is just light fluff, exactly the kind of thing I have found in Japanese light novels. Then out of nowhere the story plunges into depth and darkness, becoming far more serious than I had imagined. Severe child abuse. The isolation of adoption into an unloving family. Exploration of identity. There is some intense psychological horror going on in the story.

Unfortunately, Mizuki didn’t go back and re-write the first half to fit better with the second, so you end up with a disjointed reading experience. Mizuki is clearly a more powerful writer than is let on, and I am interested to see how the “Book Girl” series progresses. Does it become lighter, like the first half, or heavier and darker like the second? I suppose there is only one way to find out!

Japanese Architecture: A Short History

4.0 out of 5 stars Japanese architecture over the years

Japanese Architecture: A Short History (Tuttle Classics)

A.L. Sadler’s 1941 book “Japanese Architecture: A Short History” is one of several books Sadler wrote to help introduce the West to the then-unknown culture of Japan. More than just a textbook or academic exercise, Sadler infuses his description of Japanese architecture with short lessons on Japanese culture and society. One cannot separate the building from the people, after all.

“Japanese Architecture” goes through each period a chapter at a time, from the Early Period (660 BC – 540 AD) up to the Edo Period (1616 – 1860 AD). He then discusses some of the special features of Japanese architecture, such as the shoji screens, the bathroom, and the ceilings. He goes into some depth of the building regulations of the Tokugawa period, which prescribed what kind of house you could live in by what class you were born into.

By “short history,” Sadler isn’t kidding. Each period gets only a few pages to cover several hundred years, which makes for quick and easy reading. Fully a third of the book is illustrations. Unfortunately, the illustrations are not spread throughout the text but collected in the back as an appendix. That means you have to do a lot of flipping back and forth as you read the book to look at the picture that Sadler is describing.

I enjoyed “Japanese Architecture: A Short History” even though the writing was a bit dry. I was happy for the short chapters, and I wish the pictures had been published next to the text instead of in the back. I don’t know if this is how the book originally appeared in 1941 or not, but that is likely. When I lived in Japan I was curious about the different types of buildings, particularly in the shrines and temples that appear everywhere but are often stylistically different. Thanks to Sadler’s book I have a better grasp of the architecture and can better place when a particular building was made by what style it is in.

Ichiro

5.0 out of 5 stars The Mythology of War

Ichiro

“Ichiro” is exactly why I like comics. Ryan Inzana makes skillful use of the medium to weave a compelling story of Japanese mythology, race relations, family relations, and the folly of war. With his clean and simple visuals he describes complex ideals and deep emotional truths that wouldn’t have had the same impact in novel form.

On the surface, Inzana mixes the ancient fairy tale of the Tanuki Teakettle with a contemporary–and very real–story of a young half-Japanese boy named Ichiro, who has suddenly had his world upturned. Hi American father died long ago in the Iraq war, and his Japanese mother, struggling to make a living in the U.S., takes Ichiro back to Japan and contemplates returning to a country Ichiro barely knows. While his mother interviews for a job, Ichiro is thrust together with a Grandfather he doesn’t remember, who takes the boy on a tour of Japan, from Tokyo down through Hiroshima and ending in Izumo to witness the Kami Mukae festival where all of the gods of Japan gather once a year to meet in Izumo Shrine. But along the way, Ichiro is flung into a fantasy world of magical creatures and yokai, Japanese monsters, and a war between Heaven and Hell.

One of the things that impressed me right away with “Ichiro” was its authenticity. I know nothing of Inzana’s background or ethnicity, but he gives the feel of drawing from person experience and background knowledge for this comic. I did my Master’s Degree in Japanese folklore in Hiroshima, and I was getting nostalgic looking at his artwork. Inzana also perfectly capture the awesome power of the Hiroshima Peace Park. It is very difficult to go there and come away unchanged.

Ichiro is certainly changed by the experience. He begins the story as a military-loving, father-worshiping young man who clings to his father’s war experience like a totem, wearing a “Kill `em all and let God sort `em out” t-shirt and his father’s sunglasses. When he sees the devastation of Hiroshima, he starts to hate America until his Grandfather reminds him that Ichiro is also American, as was the father he idolizes. There are no easy answers, and Inzana doesn’t offer trite or candy-coated wisdoms to ease the bitter pill the conflicted Ichiro has to swallow. I know exactly how he feels.

The fantasy elements begin about halfway through the book, when a confluence of circumstances finds Ichiro whisked away to mythical Japan, into the underworld of Yomi where the monsters live. Yomi has been at war with Ama, the home of the gods, since the Heavenly Bridge was broken and forces conspired to set the two kingdoms against each other.

Inzana impressed me with his ability to flow the story so freely between modern day and mythical Japan. Although there is some foreshadowing, Ichiro’s is spirited away so suddenly you can’t help but get whisked away along with him. His depictions of the Japanese underworld and its inhabitants pass my accuracy test as much as his scenes of Hiroshima. He draws heavily from the Yamato Shinto pantheon from the Kojiki, including Amaterasu, Susano, and the god of war Hachiman. He also populates his fantasy kingdom with kappa, tengu, Aobozu, and a host of creatures from traditional Japanese folklore.

While the fantasy element tells its own story, there is a clear metaphor; the cracking of the Bridge of Heaven is a terrorist attack. The heavenly kingdom of Ama blames their old enemy of Yomi, and wages war against them even though evidence for the attack points elsewhere. The god of war Hachiman counsels against the pointless war, but as a loyal soldier he does as he is told. Both sides become embroiled in a ages-long cycle of attack-and-revenge, attack-and-revenge. I didn’t have to look too hard to see the US/Iraq war, Colin Powel, George Bush, and the Twin Towers. But the metaphor is not heavy-handed and in your face. Inzana much too subtle a storyteller for that.

Inzana’s art, by the way, is fantastic and equally as powerful as his writing. He has his own style that involves loose, fluid brush strokes. I found it entirely fitting that his art style is rarely black-and-white, but relies heavily on shades of gray, just like the ideology that makes up his story. The whole tone of the comic and the art is personal, and you can tell that this comic means something to Inzana.

I have read that Inzana uses his color palette to distinguish between the real and fantasy Japan, and that is the only thing I regret about my black-and-white advanced review copy–I realize I am not seeing this work in its full splendor. The comic looks fantastic as it is, and I think it works perfectly fine in black-and-white, but as skillfully as Inzana handles the story and the art I am sure he handles the colors impressively.

It says on the back cover that this is Ryan Inzana’s second graphic novel. I had never heard of him before “Ichiro,” but I will be looking up his previous work as well as keeping an eye on him in the future.

Gantz

3.0 out of 5 stars Dead Guys battle Aliens

Gantz

I have never read the Gantz comic, nor seen the anime, so my only exposure to this series is the live-action movies. I knew nothing of what to expect going into the film other than what I had read on the box cover.

Right from the start, “Gantz” feels like a comic adaptation rather than a movie. In several of the scenes, I didn’t know what was going on and I wondered if the director expected everyone to know the background from the comic series. It didn’t really matter though, because the film was soon head-over-heals in giant combat and I got the feeling that the “why” didn’t matter very much. This is a film that you have to shut off your logic-brain and go on pure Rule of Cool.

The concept is esoteric from the beginning: Random people are plucked from the verge of death and find themselves in a featureless room with a giant black ball in the middle. The black ball–which we learn is named Gantz–tells them that their previous lives are over and their only option now is too battle aliens in some sort of game. You get points for how you do in the alien game, and if you get to 100 points then you can chose to go back to your life, or resurrect someone who died during a previous game. Gantz also supplies you with a supersuit and somewhat functionless weapons to carry out your task with.

“Gantz” feels like a lot of different films. There are obvious hints of The Matrix. There are some touches of Death Note and even 20th Century Boys, although both of those are much better films than “Gantz.” Stylistically, it looks good but it looks like a live-action cartoon rather than a movie. The monsters were interesting, and my favorites were the Deva guardian and the thousand-armed Kannon statues. I liked the touches of Japanese mythology mixed into the Sci Fi action. But there wasn’t enough of this. The aliens seemed to be wholly unconnected and just gave the protagonists something to fight.

The cast for “Gantz” was decent, but they rotated in and out so fast it was hard to get a grasp of any single character. Lead actor Ninomiya Kazunari (Letters from Iwo Jima) wasn’t really compelling enough as Kurono Kei to carry the whole film. Matsuyama Kenichi (Kamui Gaiden) is a much stronger actor, although he was in a supporting role. I thought that was kind of a waste. Having Matsuyama front and center would have been a better choice. Yoshitaka Yuriko (NEW Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler) didn’t seem to serve much purpose other than to fill out her form fitting suit, which she did rather well.

Overall, I enjoyed “Gantz” but wasn’t blown away by it. Even as a live-action anime film it pales beside “Death Note” and “20th Century Boys.” As a film in its own right it is some mindless but forgettable fun.

The DVD is a 2-disk set with some bonus footage and some interviews. All of those are nice but not really enough of an addition to justify the second disk. They probably could just have been included on the first disk as bonus features.

Breathe Deeply

4.0 out of 5 starsMedical Ethics and Love

Breathe Deeply

In a bit of fortunate synchronicity, I had just finished reading Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization before diving into the latest release from One Peace Books, “Breathe Deeply.” Because I had just gotten a crash course in humanity’s endless attempts at extending life and defeating death, I was better equipped to understand the perspectives and philosophies–if not the medical techniques–that are addressed by “Breathe Deeply.”

Breathe Deeply is not the age-old Science vs. Religion debate. It is not even the Transhumanist debate. It is about Science vs. Science. It is about what prices people are willing to pay, and as stated “Just because we can do something, doesn’t me we should do it.”

In the story, there are two brilliant young doctors. Inaba Sei is a chemical engineer working on mechanical hearts and plastic cells that replicate human cells. Oishi Tsuyoshi is a biologist working with ES stem cells to grow new organs. Both were in love with the same girl, Yuko, who died of a heart condition when they were young. Yuko’s death drives both Inaba and Oishi, but in different directions. Both want to extend human life, but Inaba feels that life should never continue at the expense of someone else’s death, so he is opposed to transplants and stem cell research. Oishi feels that filling up a body with plastic parts that don’t work very well is just a dream. Transplants and stem cell research work, and that is what matters.

Because “Breathe Deeply” is a thick book–248 pages–there are a host of other characters and perspectives as well. There is the organ donor advocate whose own wife was turned into donation parts, and who feels strongly (too strongly it turns out) about Inaba’s opposition to transplants. There is the chief research doctor, whose studies haven’t shown results, and isn’t above using deception and her own sex appeal to advance herself. There is the mother whose child is waiting for a transplant, and doesn’t care about points of view and humanity, she just wants one of these high-and-mighty doctors to fix her little girl. And then there is Yuko herself, shown in flashbacks, torn between Inaba’s ideals of purity, and her own desire to live at any cost which she shares only with Oishi.

“Breathe Deeply” is not an easy read. I had to read it twice through to pick up on all of the nuances, all of the philosophy being discussed. I don’t know how accurate the science is, but the book lists a heady roll-call of Tokyo University chemical engineers and biologists who acted as consultants, so I assume it is a step-up from your average medical drama. There is definitely a bit of science fiction going on, as Inaba’s breathing plastic polymers exist nowhere in the real world, and neither can we grow new hearts from stem cells.

Philosophically, I recognized many of the debates put forth. There are sides taken; the heroes and villains all stand on one side of the debate or the other. One gruesome image in particular of a genetically engineered baby born without a brain to be used as spare organ parts shows where the writer’s sympathies lie. The anti-transplant narrative was hard to digest, especially the insinuation that brain-dead patients marked as donors have the ability to magically wake up from their comas. This isn’t so. The point of view I find the strongest is what The Quest for Immortality calls the Wisdom Narrative; meaning that we will all, 100% of us, die eventually, and that accepting that fact is the only true path to happiness. But nobody likes to hear that.

The art in “Breathe Deeply” is well done, but not particularly outstanding. It serves the purpose of the story, without distracting. The characters are distinct. The situations believable. The only problem I had with the art was the image of Yuko in a coma, looking angelically beautiful. I have seen people in comas before, with their slack faces and odd coloring; they look anything but angelically beautiful. It is a love story, however, so some license must be taken. The series is credited to Yamaaki Doton, which is a pseudonym of a husband-and-wife team, but I am not sure how they split the chores.

I would have a hard time recommending “Breathe Deeply” just as a comic. The story is solid, but unless you are interested in the debates over stem cell research the love-triangle isn’t really enough to carry the book. There are long pages and passages that delve into science and possibility, and those pages stand a good chance of boring the average reader. If I hadn’t just read “Immortality,” I don’t think I would have enjoyed this as much as I did.

Posted in Manga. Tags: . Leave a Comment »

.hack//CELL Volume 1

1.0 out of 5 stars The cover is the best thing about this book

.hack//CELL Volume 1

“.hack//CELL Volume 1” has been sitting on my “to be read” pile for quite a long time, more than a year. Now that I have finally gotten around to reading it, I realize I should have let it sit awhile longer. Or just never read it at all.

“.hack//CELL” takes place at the same time as “.hack//Roots,” in The World R:2. The connection to the other .hack series is tenuous, however. Haseo makes a brief appearance in his hunt for Tri-Edge, and Silabus and Gaspard show up as well, almost as if to say “See! This really is .hack!” But other than that, “.hack//CELL” is really the story of two Midoris.

One Midori is a PC in The World, a Professional Victim who wanders around with her companion Adamas. Midori carries some sort of secret, which Adamas knows but Midori seems to have forgotten. The other Midori is an average school girl who doesn’t even play the game. Her friend, Kaho, tries to lure her into The World, but it isn’t until Midori becomes hospitalized with some unknown illness that she sees the appeal of escaping into a fantasy world. The reader is left to guess how much—if at all—the two Minoris are linked, and what is the secret behind them both.

To start off with, this novel had an amateurish translation. The sentence structure and storytelling was clunky, and the translator had difficulty with the Japanese word for blue/green. Midori would talk about her green eyes in one paragraph, and then her blue eyes in the next. There were several other errors, and the text just didn’t flow.

But even with a good translation, I don’t think “.hack//CELL” would have been a good read. The author, Suzukaze Ryo, says in his afterword that he didn’t know much about the .hack universe, and wasn’t given much guidance on what kind of story to tell. He emphasized the real-world Midori, which could have been interesting as most .hack series emphasize the game, but Midori was a lifeless and ultimately boring character whose internal dilemmas and fuzzy philosophizing on the nature of reality didn’t make for a compelling read.

I wasn’t expecting anything amazing when I picked this up, just some light entertainment. Unfortunately, it was one of those books I had to grind through till the end. Even then, you don’t get a complete story. This is followed up by  .hack//CELL Volume 2, but I won’t be along for that ride.

Gate 7, Volume 2

4.0 out of 5 stars Same lovely art with a thicker plot

Gate 7 Volume 2

I wasn’t overly impressed by the first volume of Gate 7. It was all style and no substance, with things happing too rapidly and with no characters I could care about or story I could get into. The best thing about it was the beautiful art, but that isn’t enough to carry a comic book.

“Volume Two” was a huge leap forward. The story started to come together, the characters started to flesh out, and the art remained as beautiful as ever.

The story starts off right where “Volume One” ended, with Hana under a flaming attack by Mitsuhide Akechi and his oni. They are seeking the corpse of Nobunaga so that they can capture his oni Dairokuten-Maoh, reputed to be the most powerful oni in existence. Standing against them is Masamune Date, the one-eyed Dragon. Standing with them is Tokugawa Iemitsu.

If all of those names mean something to you, then you have a decent grasp of Japanese history, specifically the Siege of Sekigahara and the Warring States period. “Gate 7” pulls fast and loose from Japanese history, merging real historical figures with fictional characters like Yukimura Sanada and the Sanada Ten Brave People. I have a pretty solid understanding of the era but there are still characters and personages I didn’t know. Fortunately for us readers, the one human character, Takamoto Chikahito, is a Kyoto history buff who gives a running commentary on new characters as they show up.

“Gate 7” uses a unique mythology vaguely based on Shinto and Japanese folklore–and I mean very, very, very vaguely based. Basically, the mythology of Gate 7 revolves around those who were enshrined as kami after death being born again as magical-based creatures in symbiotic relationships with oni. The oni in “Gate 7” are nothing like traditional oni. Instead of multi-colored giants with horns and leopard-skin loincloths the oni of “Gate 7” look almost like children clinging to their masters. Most of the magic seems to be elemental based, with lots of fire being flung around.

What I liked about “Volume Two” was how the story was developing. Chikahito actually came in handy instead of being the pointless buffoon required of the human-in-fairlyland character. Hana remains as mysterious as ever, although she seems to care for Chikahito. Tokugawa Iemitsu was an interesting addition to the cast. I was surprised that they would use Iemitsu instead of his more famous father Tokugawa Ieyasu, but it makes sense in that Iemitsu is more of a blank slate and doesn’t carry the baggage of using someone like Ieyasu.

There are still parts of “Gate 7” that are off-putting. I had some issues with the translation. I have no doubt that the translator is being faithful, but some of the turns of phrases and dialog is so awkward I am surprised it made it past an editor. There are some puns and humor that are entirely lost. The running joke about Hana loving to eat noodles has gotten old after only two volumes, and I hope they drop it soon. And there are some internal logic issues, like how is Masumune Data resurrected as a powerful magic-being, yet still be a child forced to attend Elementary school? And although Chikahito was a little more useful, he needs to magic-up a bit and stop being such a liability to the team. So far, aside from his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Japan his only ability is to be immune to magic–not a bad trait, I suppose!

The story is still more flash than substance; this is a series clearly going art first, story second. But at least now with “Volume Two” I feel like the series is going somewhere, that all that prettiness is being connected with some interesting plot and that CLAMP has a good story to tell. I will definitely pick up Volume Three and keep up with the series.

Posted in Manga. Tags: , . Leave a Comment »
%d bloggers like this: